By Vito Pugliese – The second of the two road course races on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule was completed today at the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen. While Marcos Ambrose came up short (as a result of his wreck) in his bid to tie Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon as the only three-time consecutive winners at The Glen, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski were the story in the final laps, just as they were last year. One other constant was reinforced today as well: The dwindling influence of the road course ringer. There once was a time when twice a year, those from another racing discipline could show up for the weekend, have their seat fitted, and go out and teach the left-turn only guys a thing or two about apexes, trail braking, and heel-and-toeing. For the past few years though, their impact on the sport has been diminished substantially.
This year at Watkins Glen, Carl Edwards put his No. 99 Kellogg’s Cheez-It Roush Fenway Ford on the pole, Martin Truex, Jr. paced practice, and Kyle Busch won the race. The highest finishing “ringer” was Max Papis in 15th, subbing for the injured Tony Stewart – and that position was acquired in part due to a late race wreck involving Marcos Ambrose who dominated the first half of the event, and Brian Vickers in the No. 55 MWR Toyota. The next highest finishing road course specialists? Boris Said in 22nd, Australian Owen Kelly in 24th, Alex Kennedy in 27th, and Ron Fellows in 35th. Fellows was involved in an accident on lap 39 that also included Grand Am Rolex Series driver Tomy Drissi, and Victor Dominguez, Jr. who has also competed in Touring Car, Grand Am, and a handful of Nationwide Series starts, primarily on road courses.
Looking back at some prior races, things looked markedly different. In 2002 at Watkins Glen, P.J. Jones finished fourth, Scott Pruett sixth, and Boris Said 13th. In 2003, Pruett finished second to winner Robby Gordon at the Glen. Similar scenarios and results hold true as well at Sonoma. The only real outliers here would be Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose, who combined have won four Cup Series Road Course races since 2007, however they are also full-time drivers in the series and simply have a road racing background.
So why are these road race Aces suddenly looking like Jokers when the Cup Series shows up in their arena twice a year? The answer goes beyond the Cup regulars being Jacks of all trades.
As it’s been said several times before, these are the best drivers in the world. Sure the Formula One fans would argue differently, but JPM hasn’t exactly lit up the stat sheet in the Cup Series, and even Kimi Raikkonen only stayed around long enough to run one Camping World Truck Series race at Charlotte. The level of talent that the Spring Cup Series regulars bring to the table now is elevated well above where it was even five or ten years ago. Many are recruited to participate in endurance racing regularly now. Witness A.J. Allmendinger’s win with Michael Shank Racing at Daytona in 2012, Juan Pablo Montoya’s three wins with Chip Ganassi’s team in the 24 Hour race. Brian Vickers has competed in the 24 Hours of LeMans, while Jimmie Johnson has competed with the GAINSCO Sun Trust team at the 24 Hours of Daytona.
The equipment used today is far superior to what once would be acceptable for a car set up to turn left and right. It used to be a team would take their Martinsville car, put the filler neck on the right side for Watkins Glen, and hope the driver wouldn’t cook the brakes or break the transmission. Now teams have dedicated road course cars, with brakes that can withstand a pounding all race long, transmissions that don’t require much finesse, increased downforce and reliability, and since the advent of the CoT, a much more hearty and durable machine that can take a beating. Drivers themselves have been getting more involved. While Boris Said and Max Papis have taught half the field the nuances of road racing, others have attended schools such as Skip Barber and Bob Bondurant, in an effort to make themselves more competitive and competent.
The teams as well have taken more of an involvement in the development of cars engineered for road racing, by bringing on engineering talent from other road course based series, as well as technology transfers from their respective manufacturers. In the mid-1990s, Roush Racing’s Trans-Am program helped provide some direction for their Cup program, which saw Mark Martin win three consecutive races at Watkins Glen from 1993-1995, as well as Sonoma in 1997. Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham took things to a new level when they won three in a row at The Glen from 1997-1999, as well as at Sonoma in 1998-2000. These two organizations helped cast the die that raised road racing to an art form, and not the twice a year oddity that some ascribed to it.
Why this sudden acceptance and renaissance and rush to embrace the road race? Since The Chase points system was instituted in 2004, it made the first 26 races of the year take on an importance all their own. What used to be a couple of throw-away-hope-for-the-best races, might make the difference between squeaking into the Top 12, or lamenting one’s lot in life after the September Richmond race.
Which brings up another point. If road course races make up almost 10% of the regular season schedule, why isn’t there one in The Chase? The last couple of seasons, the action on the road courses has arguably been some of the best we’ve seen. Think of them as the new short racks on the schedule, both in the Sprint Cup Series and on the Nationwide side. Last year’s last lap duel between Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose was one of the best finishes in the history of the sport. Four lead changes on the last lap?
If NASCAR is looking for that Game Seven moment during The Chase, look no further.
In fact, Watkins Glen would make a great back drop for a Chase Race date in early October. The fiery backdrop of the changing autumn foliage would look fantastic on television – although the teams might want to affix deer whistles to the nose. It’s typically not a soggy season, and snow isn’t really a threat, and as any college football fan will tell you, nothing’s better than an afternoon of tailgating in a hooded sweatshirt in a parking lot, and not getting sunburned, heat stroke, or ate up by mosquitoes. If today’s throng which was lined up and down US-15 to get into the track this morning, and to waive at the team haulers as they exited. With Chase race emphasis and importance, I believe there would likely be less ringers in the field, as teams would depend on the drivers they’ve hired for the whole year to become proficient at road course racing.
Think about it – a driver like Marcos Ambrose (who had today’s race in hand early on) can knock out a road course win in the regular season, and slide into the Top 12 by Richmond, it suddenly makes them a championship threat come Chase time. Talk about the true definition of a “wild card”.
As speeds continue to increase and passing becoming more difficult to execute on the intermediate tracks (which are now posting super-speedway type MPH numbers), adding another road course into the mix might make for an interesting solution. NASCAR is working to help find a solution to increase viewership and create some more buzz around The Chase, which is in full swing just as the NFL is getting going. Adding in a track with a twist that’s only a few hours from the media hub that is New York City might make more sense than the current schedule has provided.